This week HBO released the DVD of its fascinating movie Grey Gardens, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.
The true life story spans 40 years spotlighting the mother/daughter relationship of ‘Big Edie’ (Lange) and ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale (Barrymore), who were relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Set in 1973, the movie shows the decline of the Beales from riches to poverty. I spoke with Jessica Lange about her dedication to bringing ‘Big Edie’s’ story to the screen.
There was a documentary on the Beales made in 1973, but how did you know how to portray ‘Big Edie’ in the earlier years?
Drew and I had a treasure trove of still photography from those early days, but we didn’t have any footage. But what we had in the documentary was the source of what to base those characters on, even going back 40 years.
We had their voices; we had the way they moved. We had their sense of humor, their relationship. So it was easy to kind of re-imagine what it was like 40 years earlier, and there was a lot written about these women.
I remember when I was researching ‘Big Edie,’ there were descriptions of her wedding back in 1917, which was very elaborate. So you had a sense of who they were and where they were starting from.
It was a fascinating experience as an actor to try to imagine these characters that are so indelible, what they were like and that arc from beginning to end.
Is this one of the most challenging roles you’ve ever played?
It’s the most difficult role I’ve had in a long time, and it was great to do because I think as an actor if you don’t flex your muscles you get flaccid and lazy.
I’ve been very lazy as of late, and it was a wonderful opportunity to really work hard again the way that I was accustomed to at one time. The big moment for me when I was deciding to do this part, was how much would I risk?
I decided I would risk it all, because what did I have to lose at this point in my career? Nothing. So I thought I’d take it out there as far as I could, which included for me singing, which I had never done before in my life.
After playing ‘Big Edie’ do you have any insight into why they would live in such squalor?
I think despite the fact that ninety-nine percent of the people who look at this, or who are familiar with the documentary, might say, ‘Oh, how could they have lived like that?
How could they let themselves get to this point?’ on the flip side, if you kind of divorce yourself from all of our conceptions of what is right, what is proper and what is normal, these women I truly believe had incredibly rich lives, and they adored one another.
They were never bored with one another. They went through their lives with this very interesting love affair, this relationship. There was never any question of them leaving Grey Gardens.